What the Military Can Teach Organizations About Agility

U.S. armed services are experimenting with ways to make faster — and smarter — decisions, and business should take note.

Reading Time: 6 min 


Organizations across the world are facing a crisis of agility. Confronted with a volatile and highly unpredictable external environment, they are being forced to adapt at a speed for which they simply are not built. The larger and more established the company, the more it seems to struggle to escape organizational gravity.

While companies often look to technology companies for inspiration on how to adjust, large organizations might consider using the U.S. military as an example. Once bastions of command-and-control management style, modern military institutions such as the U.S. Marine Corps are at the forefront of thinking about organizational and leadership agility, mastering how to evolve at “clock speed.”

Overcoming the military’s traditional hierarchical model has been essential in an era of digitally enabled terrorism. Today’s military thinking now emphasizes the kind of innovation necessary to move its leadership efficiently through the four decision cycles of observe, orient, decide, and act in order to respond quickly to sudden external threats.

These same kinds of practices can make a big difference in helping any company respond to threats with greater agility, when applied as part of a wider program of change. Here are three specific practices that organizations should borrow from military leadership:

Practice 1

Leaders should focus on decisions only they can make. “I was most effective when I supervised processes,” wrote retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal in his book Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (Portfolio/Penguin, 2015). “Individuals and teams closest to the problem, armed with unprecedented levels of insights from across the network, offer the best ability to decide and act decisively.”

This recommendation might sound obvious, but it makes for a far-reaching and powerful strategy: To be successful, leaders must resist the temptation to dive in to “solve” a problem that should have someone else’s name on it. Leaders should be absolutely clear about what decisions only they can make and push all other decisions as far down the organization as possible.

Managers will be surprised at how few decisions only they can make. Those decisions include choosing their direct team, authorizing spending over a certain limit, and updating the Board or regulators. Most other decisions can be made elsewhere in the organization, and preferably as close as possible to the front line — the customer, in the corporate context.


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Comments (4)
Kevin Donaldson
Good article!  The following book has a lot of good case studies on the topic specifically applying the principals of maneuver warfare to business:
The Marine Corp Way
Peter Farrell-Vinay
Mentioning the OODA cycle ain't enough: when in 1870 Adalbert von Bredow planned the charge of the Prussian Dragoons, he first took 30 minutes to understand the state of the ground and the opposition before issuing his orders. He noticed two declivities which enabled his troops to get near the French without being detected. In other words he "appreciated" the position he was in before he did anything - an essential principle

This principle wasn't applied in Vietnam or Afghanistan, and it rarely occurs in business. It's one of the reasons so many project fail.
Bruno Gebarski
Brilliant short write that EVERY senior and middle manager should read and ruminate upon. Wise words for encouraging decentralizing the command-and-control hierarchical mindsets of so many companies, oligarchies obsessed with regulations, rules, rigidity, hierarchical structures and red tape creating endless amount of isolated silos. 

Delegating decisions down to the customer front-line would and will increase customer service efficiency, customer experience and above all Employee Experience and satisfaction altogether. It will grant the workforce faced with daily challenges & problems the opportunity to participate and contribute in the decision making process on how they themselves see fit and appropriate at the moment .... Bruno Gebarski @brunogebarski
Geert Verschaeve
This is a great article David. My big takeaway is this: "It means focusing on the “why” and “what,” while leaving the “how” to those closer to the front line"

I personally had a hard time, at first, letting those I led try to figure out the how, when I could come up with it so much faster. But then I realised, it's by allowing those I have to lead to grow, to become better, that everyone (including myself) becomes better. Because I  cannot serve the company well when I'm micromanaging.

Love the directed telescope concept as well. Very interesting article!